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Yazidis Escape Militants in Iraq; Kurds Recapture ISIS-Held Towns; U.S. May Send More Advisers to Iraq; Baghdad Violence; Car Bombs Rock Baghdad; Iraq New Leader

Aired August 12, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. I'd like to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We're following a desperate escape from brutal Islamic militants in Iraq and a political struggle over the country's future. Here are the latest developments. Crowds of Yazidi refugees made it to safety after escaping the threat by ISIS militants. The members of the religious minority were trapped on a mountain without food or water. Yesterday, we showed you those heart-wrenching pictures as the Yazidis clamored to get on a helicopter delivering aid. Today, we're getting reports that an Iraqi chopper has crashed during an aid mission. More information coming in.

Kurdish fighters, meanwhile, backed by U.S. air strikes were able to break the siege by ISIS and help the Yazidis escape. The U.S. military says warplanes carried out another strike today against an ISIS mortar position, and we've just learned that the U.S. may be sending more military advisers to Iraq.

The Obama administration is pinning its hopes for a new Iraqi government on the prime minister-designate, Haider Al Abadi. But Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki refuses to go quietly. The secretary of state, John Kerry, says Al Abadi needs to form a new cabinet as soon as possible.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The new Iraqi leadership has a very difficult challenge. It has to regain the confidence of its citizens by governing, inclusively, but also by taking steps to demonstrate their resolve. And we're going to continue to stand with the Iraqi people during this time of transition.


BLITZER: They walked for days down a desolate mountain. Our Senior International Correspondent Ivan Watson has been documenting the plight of Iraq's Yazidi minority trying to escape murderous Islamic terrorists. Ivan was there as crowds of Yazidis made it to safety along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look at these people fleeing across borders to escape ISIS militants. On this bridge which leads from a Kurdish-controlled part of Syria here into Iraqi Kurdistan, we've been watching a stream of desperate families carrying little more than the clothes on their backs, walking. Some of these people have been on the move for days. Some of them have been camping. And now they're arriving here in Iraqi Kurdistan after fleeing their homes. In many cases, in just a matter of minutes.

This stream of people, thousands every hour, has been continuing, I'm told, for days across this bridge. And it's a part of a much larger wave of desperate people all across the north of Iraq who are fleeing ISIS militants, which appears to be carrying out a campaign of ethnic and sectarian cleansing because many of these people -- I mean, just look at the faces. Look at the children here and what they're able to bring with them after they've been made instantly homeless. And these people, and we've seen it, will end up tonight sleeping on roadsides. Sleeping in ruined, abandoned buildings because there is simply no place else to go.

The cash-strapped government of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq is trying to help some. There are some international organizations helping. But, for the most part, this is a local project to help these people escape danger and come to a new place where there is no infrastructure and hardly any network of support for these people. And you can see how dazed they are when they come across the border and they have to find someplace else to go.

These are not warriors. These are the elderly. These are children. These are mothers. These are fathers and husbands desperate to find some place where they can protect their families. This is a humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in front of our eyes here in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ivan Watson, CNN, reporting from the Peshawar (ph) River between the Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria.


BLITZER: As the U.S. military continues to strike ISIS positions from the air, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are making a dent in the terror grip ISIS has on a huge swath in northern Iraq. Makhmour is one of those cities Kurdish forces have now recaptured. They took control of it on Sunday. That doesn't necessarily mean it's safe by any means.

Our Correspondent Anna Coren is joining us now live from Erbil. Anna, you and our photo journalist, Phil Littleton, you were in Makhmour earlier today. Tell our viewers what you saw.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf, we traveled to this border town, if you like. It's really the front line of the Peshmerga's fight against the ISIS militants. And, as you say, they managed to retake this town several days ago after ISIS came in, seized the territory, claiming that it was part of its new Islamic state. Well, thanks to the U.S. air strikes that took place over the weekend, the Peshmerga were able to move back into this area, fight the ISIS militants and reclaim this town. But, I must say, Wolf, it is an absolute ghost town. Nobody is there. And those who were there were packing up their belongings after returning because, obviously, the Peshmerga now have control of it. Packing up their belongings and getting out of there because they don't feel safe. ISIS is just a matter of kilometers away. That is how close they are.

The Peshmerga, they took us beyond the front lines towards enemy territory to go and see the remnants of the targets of those U.S. air strikes. And several kilometers past the front lines, we turned off -- we were there only for a short time, but we saw what was once an artillery piece being used by is against the Kurdish forces. So, it was -- it was quite incredible because the Peshmerga had never seen this before. It was the first time that they had actually seen this piece of artillery that had been taking them out for days. And to then sort of witness what this U.S. air strike had done, completely destroyed this piece of artillery, they were truly amazed. It certainly buoyed (ph) spirits and confidence and morale.

You know, and, as I say, they do believe they can fight the ISIS militants. But the residents who returned for their belongings, Wolf, they don't agree. They honestly believe that ISIS will reclaim this territory. They know how aggressive they are. They know how brutal they are. And they really just fear for their lives. So, they've gone home, gathered whatever belongings they can. And we just saw this mass exodus of cars and trucks leaving Makhmour and heading to us here where we are now in Erbil -- Wolf.

BLITZER: But, Anna, as you point out, they're under no illusions. U.S. air strikes certainly can be helpful, destroying an artillery position here, an artillery position there. That certainly will help. But the ISIS forces, they are well armed. They're well equipped. They have a lot better equipment than the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, have. They need a lot more support to get the job done. Otherwise, it's just going to go on and on and on.

COREN: Yes, absolutely. This artillery piece, it was actually a piece of U.S. weaponry that was once used by the Iraqis. But ISIS, as we know, seized a whole bunch of American weapons. So, they are well- armed and they are outgunning the Peshmerga.

Speaking to the Kurdish forces, they say they need more air strikes. They need the Americans patrolling the skies. Otherwise, they're not willing to go beyond the front lines that they have established. They were very reluctant to take us to go and see this artillery piece which, if you like, was in no-man's-land because literally, you know, two kilometers that way was a town that we know ISIS militants are staying at. So, they need the air strikes to continue. They also need weapons. We do understand that these weapons, from the Americans, are getting directly to the Kurdish forces. But obviously, Wolf, as we -- as we know, they definitely need a lot more help.

BLITZER: Yes, they definitely need a lot more weapons. And so far, I'm told, so far, they've been getting some ammunition from the U.S., but they really need some heavy weaponry, if they're going to take on these ISIS terrorists.

Anna Coren, thanks very much. Stay safe over there. We'll be in close touch with you.

The U.S. is considering some various ways to try to help these remaining Yazidis trapped on Iraq's Mt. Sinjar and ways to help the Kurdish fighters battle the ISIS militants. The plan may involve sending more U.S. military advisers to Iraq.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is picking up this part of the story. So, how many more military advisers, how many more U.S. soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen, is the Pentagon planning on sending to Iraq?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, let's just talk about this within the context of military advisers. What we're looking at is the possibility of up to 75 additional military advisers, advisers only, going to northern Iraq to help look at two problems. What does it take to help the Peshmerga fighters? They need more arms, more ammunition, more weapons. What do they need to get back on their feet? But the bigger issue, perhaps, is what can the U.S. do, along with other countries, to get those people trapped on that mountain off of there.

So, expect to see these advisers, once it's approved and if they go, to begin to look very hard at the options, the possibilities of what could be done. Officials are telling us one of the biggest problems right now is trying to determine how many people are really there. You know, you look at the video and you can certainly see hundreds at a time. They don't know if there's 5,000 or 20,000 people on top of that mountain.

So, they need better intelligence. They need to know who's there. And they're beginning to work on the concept of what options, if countries ban together, could there be to get those people off that mountain. It is going to take military capability to do it whether it's aircraft or vehicles. It's going to take a security element on the ground. It could be a very vast undertaking. But that is what these new advisers are going to be looking at -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Barbara, there's a lot of concern about what's called mission creep. You start off with a few dozen advisers, then a few hundred advisers. Are they up to 1,000 yet as far as over the past two months? Are there 1,000 new military advisers in Iraq, as we speak right now?

STARR: You know, it all is really a number situation, Wolf. You have about 250 U.S. military advisers. So, there's still under that sort of cap that the president set of no more than 300. But you do have over 700 military personnel, in total, in Iraq. A good many of them are doing security. Security at the U.S. embassy and security based out of the airport in Baghdad to be ready to go if that embassy had to evacuate, for example. So, you have about 250 people in the role of advisers and running these joint operations centers which are the heart of the advisory mission and the balance of up to over 700 included in that doing the security mission. The administration is very sensitive to the Mission Creep question. If these new advisers go in to help with an evacuation plan, that, in fact, will be a new mission. But the administration will make the case that this is an unanticipated and unbelievable humanitarian crisis and that they have to do something about it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I assume there are a lot of contractors the United States has sent in as well, in addition to the active-duty military personnel who are serving as advisers, right?

STARR: Well, I think it's fair to say that there are some contractors. I don't believe you're going to find a lot of them in the type of quasi combat role we saw in Iraq in the old days. A lot of this is working some of the very high-tech intelligence and communications systems. Contractors have a lot of expertise in that. And that is all part of the overall U.S. mission in Iraq.

BLITZER: And just a technical question. The military advisers and between the 300 and the 700, we're talking about 1,000 active duty U.S. military personnel in Iraq --


BLITZER: -- right now, right?

STARR: No, let me -- let me -- let me go back. If you start at the top line, it's over 700 -- just over 700 military personnel in Iraq. Within that 700, in fact, there are about --

BLITZER: All right.

STARR: -- 250 military advisers.

BLITZER: Do they wear uniforms or are they in civilian clothes?

STARR: To the best of my knowledge, Wolf, these people are there very openly and that means they're in U.S. military uniforms. This is with the permission and the acquiescence of the Iraqi government. It is fundamentally no different for the U.S. military than how they operate around the world, helping train and advise in many countries around the world. It is usually done by Special Forces. Some of them may not be. A good many of them are. They are, by all accounts, in U.S. military uniforms.

BLITZER: And they have immunity from Iraqi prosecution?

STARR: There -- a deal was worked out on this several weeks ago, as you recall, where, yes, they have all the legal protections, according to the U.S. administration that they need. The U.S. is very satisfied that the Maliki government will protect them and, of course, it was the Maliki government that wanted U.S. help in the first place.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect, though, that 700 number eventually is -- probably sooner rather than later, is going to go up to 1,000. We'll see where it goes from there. And as you correctly point out, and I know this as well, they are very concerned about this phrase Mission Creep. It's a very, very sensitive issue out there right now. Barbara, thanks very much for that report. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

So, is there a political solution to the crisis in Iraq? Our own Fareed Zakaria, he's standing by. We'll discuss the U.S. options in Iraq, the future of Nuri al Maliki. Can there be a peaceful handover of the government in Baghdad?

Also, we're going to take you live to Baghdad where two car bombs have just exploded in the last few hours. Stay with us. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: At least nine people are dead, dozens more wounded, after two car bomb attacks in Baghdad. Let's get straight to our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, you actually heard one of those bombs explode, is that right?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. It went just off behind us actually while we were reporting from here, a black plume of smoke in the Karada (ph) district. One of two bombs. The other just slightly to the south of that in Zapania (ph). It seems to have killed at least nine people. Differing casualty tolls here. Sadly, relatively frequent occurrence particularly in those Shia neighborhoods where these two devices struck.

But coming at a particularly tense time, of course, Wolf, because today it became very unclear as to what exactly Nuri al Maliki, in the eyes of many, the former prime minister of Iraq, will do next. We've seen John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, suggest that the prime minister-designate Haider al-Ibadi, is effectively the man who's going to be running the next government. Even the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, saying that Maliki is responsible for the chaos Iraq has found itself in.

The west clearly moving on concerning Maliki to history. Iran even, a staunch backer, saying they will respect the prime minister-designate, that particular choice. Allies deserting Maliki left, right and center. We've only heard from him once today. That was to appear on state TV with military and police chiefs urging them, (INAUDIBLE), having threatened the use of force potentially himself to keep himself in power, telling the military and police chiefs to stay out of politics. So no one's quite sure what his next move is and that is what's keeping people on edge in this city. There's been so much turmoil in Iraqi politics. And even though Maliki seems on his way out, the fact that he hasn't accepted it yet has everyone on edge.


BLITZER: What about this Iraqi military helicopter, Nick, that crashed today, trying to bring some aid to the Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar? We're told the pilot was killed. "The New York Times" now reporting one of their correspondents, Alissa, Rubin, a well-known foreign correspondent for "The New York Times," she has covered a lot of wars, she was on that helicopter. She had apparently a concussion, broken wrists. Her photographer is OK. A Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament was on that helicopter. What can you tell us about what happened? It sounds very, very disturbing.

WALSH: Well, according to the Iraqi military spokesman, an MI-17 helicopter suffered a technical issue which caused it to crash. Now, of course, it was flying over a hotly contested (ph) area. You've seen how much machine-gun power they use in Ivan Watson's report when flying over that particular area. They too were delivering supplies. So, of course, many will wonder quite the circumstances about that helicopter falling out of the air.

But it just goes to highlight exactly how dangerous these aid rescue missions actually are that 20 people were heavily injured, one person lost their life when this fell out of the sky. It just goes to show that it's not only perilous for those on the mountain trying to escape, those Yazidis, it's perilous for those trying to rescue then as well.


BLITZER: Do we know if it was hostile fire or some technical problem that brought down that helicopter? Are they still investigating?

WALSH: As I say, the Iraqi military says it suffered a technical failure. Now, of course, you know, that sometimes in the war in the past I've seen that use (ph) a euphemism for entering a hostile zone. There's no indication enemy fire was involved in that, but you've got to hold that possibility out given the area. Perhaps it was navigating in, but certainly troubling for those trying to continue these aid flights. The amount of solace they bring, of course, small. It's a helicopter trying to help potentially tens of thousands of stranded people. The number not exactly precise at this stage and only able to bring out about 20 on each rescue run but still vital for those who managed to get salvation from them, Wolf.

BLITZER: And what is so worrisome is that the ISIS forces, they stole a lot of Iraqi military equipment, mostly U.S. supplied, including those shoulder fired surface to air missiles, other surface to air missiles that make those helicopters, those planes flying around trying to help those Yazidis and other Christians, minorities, so, so vulnerable.

Nick Paton Walsh in Baghdad, be careful over there as well. Terrorist explosions rocking the Iraqi capital today.

Up next, Fareed Zakaria's take on what's going on in the crisis in Iraq, and whether he thinks Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki will go quietly or will he engage in some sort of military coup. Fareed is next.


BLITZER: Let's get right back to our top story, the crisis in Iraq. The U.S. now considering sending more military advisers to Iraq to help cope with the humanitarian crisis. We're also hearing today the U.S. is backing a new leader for Iraq. Haider al Ibadi has been nominated to become the next prime minister. And as we heard earlier, the secretary of state, John Kerry, is urging him to form a new cabinet as quickly as possible.

Let's bring in Fareed Zakaria. He's the host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS." He's joining us from New York.

It's by no means a done deal, though, Fareed. Nuri al Maliki, the current prime minister, he may not go quietly. He may try to use the forces loyal to him to effectively engage in some sort of coup. What's your - what's your analysis?

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, CNN'S "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": My own sense, Wolf, is that he won't do that. There are many, many forces within the Iraqi political system that would be very strongly opposed to them. Most importantly, Ayatollah Sistani, the chief Shiite cleric of Iraq, has always been clear that Iraq needs to be on a democratic path. You remember early on, Wolf, when we were watching the Iraqi politics begin, Sistani was very clear on the need for elections, for democracy. So I would suspect that he would come out strongly opposed to this. And in that case, Maliki's support would collapse.

Maliki's support has largely collapsed. What he is now holding on to is the thin reed that says technically he was meant to be asked first because he has the -- he's the leader of the largest bloc. That's an academic issue because his bloc, the support has disintegrated. I would suspect he might mount some kind of legal challenge but he will not try to use his position as commander in chief to do what you rightly say would be effectively a military coup.

BLITZER: So let's see what he does in the next few days. Haider al Ibadi, he himself is a Shiite. Can he unite the country? There's a Kurdish new president. There's a Sunni speaker. Can this group effectively take Iraq to a position that all of us had hoped it would be at but clearly has not reached that point by far.

ZAKARIA: That's the million dollar question, Wolf, because what we have focused a lot on is the fact that Maliki is the bad guy, he didn't reach out to the Sunnis and, you know, we need change. And that's true and Maliki has been a very sectarian and also somewhat incompetent leader.

But there is a larger sectarian dynamic in Iraq, which is to say Ibadi is himself a Shiite from the same party that Maliki is from. The party is a pretty tough, hard line party. All these guys spend most of their time in Iran before -- in exile. So they're often somewhat pro- Iranian. They're pretty tough in terms of viewing themselves as Shia first often and Iraqi second.

The other positions in the government aren't very important, you know, the speaker and the deputy speaker and all these positions. So what we've seen in the past is, you have a lot of personalities and you have the right ethnic mix, but it doesn't matter because the dynamic of the system is force - is making the Shiite politicians act more sectarian. That makes the Sunnis act more sectarian. The Kurds essentially trying to retain their independence. So I'm not very hopeful, Wolf. I think that it might be better. But

you have a sectarian dynamic at work in Iraq. If you just look at the people who are guarding these various groups, it's the Shiite soldiers who are guarding - who are - who are essentially guarding the Shiites. The Sunnis are more in the Sunni areas. Even the army, in other words, has fragmented into kind of sectarian units.

BLITZER: So in the end, maybe, when all is said and done, what Joe Biden and others recommended years ago, some sort of partition if you will of Iraq into a Sunni area, a Shiite area, a Kurdish area, that may be the best solution when all is said and done.

ZAKARIA: I think there's a lot of wisdom there. I think people do need to take a look -- a second look at what Joe Biden was suggesting, which was, by the way, to be fair to him, a loose fed - a federation (ph). He always understood you couldn't really partition as cleanly because, as you know, Wolf, the middle of the country, which would be the sort of Sunni land, is actually full of Shias. Baghdad has lots of Shias in it. So how would you do it? Historically, the way these happen is you have a certain amount of ethnic cleansing. In other words, the Sunni leave the Shia areas. The Kurds are, in any case, pretty much hermetically sealed. Maybe there's going to be a great sorting out in the Middle East. It's very sad to see. But think about what's happening, Wolf. About 600,000 Christians have already left Iraq, even before these latest strategies. You've seen Christians flee Syria. You're seeing Kurds flee Syria. You're seeing the Sunnis flee out of Shia areas. In other words, what you're seeing is a kind of -- the end of any kind of polyglot, multicultural Middle East. And what you're seeing is a very stark division where people are moving into their ethnic and religious corners.

BLITZER: Yes, so many hundreds of thousands if not millions of people have been internally displaced or externally displaced in Iraq over these past few years and now these ISIS militants control maybe a third of Iraqi territory, which is a brutal occupation, if you will, by these ISIS forces.

Fareed, thanks very much.

Fareed Zakaria joining us from New York.

Air strikes, food drops, rescue missions. We're seeing thousands and thousands of Iraqis fleeing the threat of death. So what exactly do the Kurdish fighters need to do to help save these people? We're going back live to Iraq. The chief of staff to the Kurdish president standing by to join us live from Erbil.